To the first Europeans, the Americas presented a greatly varied topography and climate, as well as a vast array of flora and fauna. The Caribbean, first encountered and settled by Spaniards in the early sixteenth century, consists of small and large islands, many quite mountainous. Most of these tropical islands enjoy abundant rainfall and, at first encounter, were heavily covered in rain forest, although a few were desert-like, owing to the vagaries of the trade winds. The Caribbean islands are roughly divided into two groups: the Greater Antilles, consisting of the four large islands of Cuba, Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), Jamaica, and Puerto Rico, and the Lesser Antilles, including dozens of smaller islands. The latter can be subdivided into the southerly Windward Islands (from Guadeloupe south to Trinidad) and the northerly Leeward Islands (from the Virgin Islands south to Montserrat); these names come from their relative exposure to the predominant trade winds. Within just a few decades of the arrival of the Spanish, the large native population that inhabited the Caribbean was almost completely eliminated. Some natives died at the hands of Spanish conquerors, but most were overcome by the diseases the Europeans inadvertently brought with them. By the eighteenth century, many of the smaller islands as well as Jamaica and the western half of Hispaniola had been seized by the British, French, and Dutch. On the smaller islands, much of the native forest was stripped away to make room for sugar plantations. On the larger islands, large parts were also converted from rain forest to monoculture. Mexico and the American Southwest Spain was also the original conqueror and colonial master on the North American mainland in the regions now known as Mexico and the American Southwest. This vast realm, encompassing roughly 1.5 million square miles, presented an extraordinary diversity of climate and topography to the early Spanish conquistadores, missionaries, colonial administrators, and settlers. Along the Gulf of Mexico, there is a broad, flat plain, roughly 100 miles in width, that eventually gives way to the Sierra Madre Orientale mountain range. This coastal plain is tropical and subtropical in climate, and it is quite humid and rainy. Unlike many of the Caribbean islands, however, the Europeans found this region to be largely devoid of thick forest and covered instead in heavy scrub and low-lying bush. Much of this area was later converted by the Spanish to sugar, tobacco, and indigo plantations, as well as to cattle ranches. The interior of Mexico, where the majority of the pre-Columbian native population lived, consists of a vast highland valley, several hundred miles in length, several dozen miles in width, and mostly above a mile in altitude. The valley experiences a subtropical climate and is semi-arid. The Aztecs and earlier civilizations in the Valley of Mexico utilized extensive irrigation systems to make up for the lack of water, and the Spanish followed suit. Northward from the Valley of Mexico, the topography becomes more broken, with long mountain ranges, stretching largely north to south, interspersed with river valleys, the most notable being the one formed by the Rio Grande. In addition, the northern stretches of New Spain, as the country’s mainland North American colony was called, were exceptionally arid and presented desert-like conditions. Much of the region experienced and continues to experience less than ten inches of rain annually, with frequent extended droughts. Plan a Trip to Caribbean Islands – Traveler Corner Caribbean – Royal Caribbean International Eastern Caribbean vs. Western Caribbean Cruises – Cruise Critic

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